Fla. special needs student left on bus, hitchhikes 30 miles home

PHOTO: Polk Co. Sheriff's Office

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – A 13-year-old special needs student had to escape his school bus through an emergency window and then hitchhike 30 miles to his home after being left on a Polk County school bus in Florida.

The victim had fallen asleep and gone unnoticed by both the school bus driver and attendant, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

The worst part is the Our Children’s Academy in Lake Wales student was reportedly left on the bus twice in one week.

Gale Brown
Gale Brown

According to a Polk County affidavit, all of the children except the victim disembarked. The school bus attendant walked to the front of the bus, not noticing the victim was still in his seat, sleeping.

The bus driver, Gale Brown, then drove and parked the bus, turning it off. Then, both individuals exited the bus without checking to ensure it was empty.

Officials said the victim woke up about 15 minutes later, climbed out of the driver’s side emergency exit window, and hitchhiked and walked approximately 30 miles to his home in Davenport.

“The attendant walked right by him on March the second. The driver paid absolutely no attention when she left the bus,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.

Less than a week later, on March 8, the victim was again sleeping in his seat, not noticed by either the driver or attendant, Gwendolyn Simmons, who left the bus after parking it. The victim again forced open the bus door, and hitchhiked and walked home.

Gwendolyn Simmons
Gwendolyn Simmons

“What wasn’t functioning? The brains of the driver and the attendant … It’s like, are you kidding me? Do you hear what I said? They left a kid on the bus twice in one week,” Judd said.

No one knew what happened until a therapist called the mom looking for the teen when he didn’t show up to school for an appointment Tuesday.

Deputies said the victim even told the driver and attendant they left him on the bus the first time it happened. Investigators said they thought he was joking.

The bus is equipped with a “child reminder system,” which requires the driver or attendant to push a button at the rear of the bus to turn it off. The purpose of the alarm is to ensure the driver or attendant check the bus for children prior to leaving. The bus is also equipped with a digital video system that recorded both incidents.

Both suspects admitted to having a student de-activate the child reminder system before they arrived at the school – in both incidents. They also admitted they did not check the bus for students before leaving.

“Between the two of them they didn’t have one thought in their head about looking out for the wellbeing of the children on that bus,” Judd said.

Neither of the suspects was aware that the victim was left unsupervised on the bus.

Both are on paid administrative leave.

This was entirely avoidable – the Polk County School Board is committed to keeping our children safe, equipping school buses with the latest technology to ensure children are not left behind. These two suspects completely disregarded all safety measures, and endangered a 13-year-old special needs student – there is absolutely no excuse for this type of neglect. – Sheriff Grady Judd

On Wednesday, officials charged both Brown and Simmons with negligent child abuse. Both suspects were arrested and booked into the Polk County Jail.

Thursday afternoon, school officials told News Channel 8 that Brown was originally hired by the district in 1991 before separating with the school system in 2001. She was rehired in 2004. School records show she has three disciplinary actions in her personnel file:

  • May 2012 – written warning for a red light camera infraction and failure to pay a fine
  • March 2000 – written reprimand for her bus not being clean on an inspection
  • September 1999 – written warning for failure to obey the 55 mile an hour speed limit

Simmons was hired in 2009 as a substitute bus attendant and became an appointed bus attendant on March 2010. She does not have disciplinary action in her personnel file.

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